18/12/2013 06:48 GMT | Updated 16/02/2014 05:59 GMT

Overcoming the Charity Woman Cliché

The charity sector is taking a bit of a battering at the moment, not least in relation to polarised arguments about pay, but also a lack of professional recognition and poor career paths that can often be criticised for not supporting talent.

The thought that charities are run by do-gooding, canvas shoe-wearing, middle-aged women (and 68% of charity workers are women) is still a stereotype that springs to mind. However, our top charities control some £56bn of assets and are running essential services - this is big business and clichéd perceptions are damaging to women's rights in general.

But for me, the major failing is not the lack of ambition or talent but the poor communication and influencing of women in the charitable sector that allow such clichés to emerge. Who are the role models? How do we hear about them? And how do we do more to celebrate a sector that has, at least compared to its FTSE 250 counterparts, made some good progress in supporting and promoting women.

In 2012 an index by the not-for-profit company Women Count found that only 17% of the top 100 charities by income had female chairs, and that only 32% of Trustees are women. Four charities of the top 100 have no female trustees and another five just one. Similarly, only 25% of top charities by income have female CEOs. Depressing or what?

But, of course, this report still compares favourably with FTSE 250 companies, where only 2.4% of chairs, 9.4% of board members and 4% of chief executives are women. On hearing these statistics I can't help but feel that it makes it more important than ever that our female charity leaders take an active role in promoting the sector - the need to battle out-of-date stereotypes should be grasped head on to avoid further damage.

The charity sector is incredibly well placed to challenge the private sector to improve its position. I don't believe that setting quotas or making diversity such a virtue that it is out of sync with organisational values is necessarily the way to go - after all, equal opportunity in my view means ensuring that the best people get the right jobs - but what we do need to do is to increase confidence, to increase the visibility of role models and to improve aspirations for the next generation of women.

The role models in the charitable sector are certainly there - my team at Cause4 cite Jane Tewson founder of Comic Relief, Kay Boycott Chief Executive Asthma UK and Zarine Kharas and Anne-Marie Huby - founders of Just Giving as examples of women that have inspired them.

However, it seems that we might be somewhat embarrassed to celebrate our 'stars' in the charitable sector... in a rather female way we're self-deprecating even in the face of exceptional achievement. We need to lose this sense of embarrassment and to encourage the debate to give confidence to women to aspire to the top leadership roles.

I was recently teaching a session about Charities and Social Enterprises to a group of MBA students- and as is often the case, one of them asked me why I'd chosen a career in the charity sector "with that sort of work ethic why are you not spending your time in the private sector making more money?" Determined not to be too irritated by the question, I spent some time reflecting and realised that I'm still fascinated by this sector; it's somewhere you can generally create programmes of impact and where you can make a difference - a cliché in itself, maybe? But I can't help but think that by recognising and celebrating examples of great leadership and entrepreneurial talent in the charitable sector, we might just embarrass the private sector to do more.

By Michelle Wright, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Cause4, which offers strategic support to charities and not-for-profit organisations in the community, arts, sports and education sectors.